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Blog Post | From ‘Disinformation’ to ‘Information Disorder’: Changing the Narrative about Unwanted Communication

Disinformation has become a popular subject of study and debate. A plethora of publications and policies have emerged, aiming to analyse and curb the negative consequences of unwanted communication.

However, conceptual fuzziness, theoretical shortcomings, and intra-disciplinary outlooks have hindered progress when it comes to practical advice for diplomats and practitioners. This blog post proposes to change the narrative about unwanted communication from being an external threat to be neutralised (”disinformation”, “propaganda”) to a structural set of malfunctions that we can treat from within (”information disorder”). 

Conceptual Clarifications

Disinformation is “the intentional and systematic manipulation of information deceiving a target audience to cause public harm, generate profit and/or advance political goals”. It may be part of wider influence operations, led by public or private actors. The key terms here are intentional and systematic, but this leads to our first issue: intent is subjective. What you may perceive as ‘intent to cause harm’ may well be interpreted by others as ‘intent to protect from harm’. Plus, research suggests that human individuals, not bots, are in fact the main drivers of false reports. However, people are often not aware that the information is false or half-true, and so  they may not have the intention to deceive. Because determining intent is quite complex, scholars have increasingly preferred to use the term “misinformation”, which is incorrect or misleading information, but not necessarily deceptive or intentionally harmful.

Secondly, we frequently hear of disinformation and propaganda together. However, these concepts are different and should not be used interchangeably. Propaganda is information shared to promote a political cause – often, but not always misleading. It is, by definition, subjective.

Both disinformation and propaganda are types of undesirable communication that can be understood as instances of information disorder, or “information pollution at a global scale”. They exacerbate polarisation, harm deliberative democracy by disrupting the public sphere, and have the potential to stimulate racially motivated violence. They operate in an increasingly complex information ecosystem, with tangible and observable effects.

So, how did we get there?

It is essential to realise the technological and psychological factors inducing information disorder. An exponential amount of internet users worldwide exist in echo chambers that positively reinforce their beliefs. Even though users get their information from very different sources, algorithms and sometimes legal frameworks guide users to what they already like and agree with, rather than diverse viewpoints. At the same time, tech giants (Meta, Twitter, Google, Microsoft, etc.) hold somewhat of a monopoly on (online) public debate, with diplomatic activity sometimes taking place primarily on the platforms these private companies provide. With many business models relying on advertising, the media ecosystem capitalises on users’ attention and data. They therefore incentivise personalised, emotional, and sensationalist content - the perfect information disorder hotbed. 

Second, it is necessary to move from actor-centred perspectives to structural analyses. Disinformation studies have initially concentrated on pro-Kremlin disinformation. This is understandable because most of the studies on influence operations are located in North America and Europe, where Russia is one of the primary sources of disinformation. However, countries across the world (see Figure 1) are engaging in social media manipulation, all using different strategies and narratives.

Figure 1: Countries taking part in social media manipulation (source: Oxford Internet Institute)

To be sure, the West should address pro-Kremlin propaganda and disinformation – especially when spread by diplomatic actors, but it should also do so towards all other sources. We have all heard of false or misleading reports spread by Donald Trump or Boris Johnson. In Serbia and Hungary, counter-disinformation laws are utilised to silence opposition. The problem is thus not actor-specific, it is structural – and it requires a structural response.

Finally, we must consider that the public has been consuming increasing amounts of information daily and has become less trusting, agreeable, and more sceptical. That’s not a bad thing – we need constructive criticism and diversity of ideas. However, it also makes information disorder powerful. When concerns of public trust and debate are not addressed, they fester. Moreover, absolute trust in political or diplomatic authorities is not rational for most people. Using the words of political scientist Pippa Norris, blind compliance raises as many issues as cynicism does, so we should therefore praise skepticism. She refers to the Russian proverb “Доверяй, но проверяй”: Trust, but verify.

Altogether, these observations suggest that information disorder can be understood as a global sociological phenomenon. For this reason, I propose to change the narrative about unwanted communication from being an external threat to be neutralised (”disinformation”, “propaganda”), to a structural set of malfunctions that we can treat from within (”information disorder”).

Managing information disorder

It’s uncomfortable to admit it, but in addition to toxic online platforms and foreign actors, domestic actors and information systems also fuel the information disorder (see the concept of participatory disinformation introduced by Kate Starbird).

There is only so much we can do to alter others’ thoughts and behaviour generating undesirable communication. It’s extremely difficult to change someone’s mind. Deterrence and debunking are not enough; research suggests they may even have adverse effects. What we can do, however, is build our societies’ resilience to manipulation. Civic education, critical thinking, media literacy, and support for quality journalism all contribute towards a healthier information order. We need to make logical reasoning as sexy as conspiracy theories, while staying away from click-bait, emotional headlines. Here lies a role for diplomats, scientists and practitioners to be transparent, improve science communication, and facilitate the accessibility of knowledge in general.

We should also encourage digital public sphere reforms. Currently, online platforms act like a trans-border public sphere. However, these public fora are primarily regulated by private actors whose primary objective is maximising profit. There should be more transparency, accountability, competition, and pluralism. With new European regulations such as the Digital Services Act and the Data Act, the EU is setting the stage for this. But as long as information disorder poses problems somewhere, it will inevitably have consequences on actors in the West. Especially when the unwanted communication is coming from actors perceived as legitimate sources of information, such as diplomatic missions abroad.

Finally, we should address underlying grievances that feed information disorder. Young generations across the world are disillusioned with democratic politics now more than ever. Many Western democracies are showing concerning signs of corrosion and policy gridlock. Polarisation is rising and inequalities are deepening. In sum, treating information disorder means addressing both symptoms and causes – i.e. the drivers of public trust.

Figure 2: Satisfaction with democracy by age group (source: University of Cambridge)


Transitioning to a healthier information order requires both individual effort and systemic change. As individuals, we should step out of our comfort zones and lean into difficult conversations with the desire to understand the concerns of other parties. Businesses should consciously design their strategies and adopt diversity of leadership. Journalists should uphold high ethical standards, and scholars ought to communicate their knowledge widely in an accessible manner. Last but not least, public actors must welcome disagreement and promote transparency, accountability, competition, and pluralism in the public sphere. That means, above all, alleviating the grip that tech giants have over online communication, and promoting media literacy and critical reasoning across society.

There is no easy fix to the information disorder. Unwanted communication will always exist, but we can improve our responses to it by (1) isolating it from political goals, (2) addressing the structural inducing factors, (3) understanding the psychology and ideology, and (4) embracing it as an opportunity for diplomatic dialogue and progress. Information disorder can also be seen as a positive development. Yes, it’s a serious challenge, but as all challenges, it provides a choice: To feel threatened, be defensive and deny criticism, or to embrace it as an opportunity for better decision-making, persistence, and growth.

Key readings on information disorder:

Sophie Vériter is a doctoral researcher at the Institute of Security and Global Affairs (ISGA) of Leiden University and a Europaeum Scholar. 

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